A supported housing option for youth living with mental illness
Visions Journal, 2017, 12 (3), p. 33
Youth Supported Independent Living (YSIL) is a supported housing program for youth ages 16 to 21. The Vancouver-Fraser YSIL program provides services in Burnaby, New Westminster, Coquitlam, Port Coquitlam, Port Moody, Pitt Meadows and Maple Ridge.
YSIL is designed for youth who have or are beginning to show signs of mental illness and who are unable to live at home with their family. The program can help youth make the transition to adulthood by providing stable housing and helping them get the proper supports to better manage their mental illness.
For these youth, living at home may no longer be an option for various reasons. Parents may be unable to give their child needed support, for example, or parents may be struggling with their own mental health issues. Financial difficulties may make living at home impossible, or there may be conflict between the youth and his or her parents or siblings. To access the YSIL program, a youth must be a client of the Ministry of Children and Families and must be seeing a mental health clinician. Clinicians can make a referral to the YSIL program.
YSIL provides safe, affordable housing through a housing subsidy. The subsidy comes from BC Housing and is administered by the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) Vancouver-Fraser branch. The subsidy is applied towards market rental housing, usually a one-bedroom apartment. The program also includes support from a youth worker to aid program participants to master basic life skills and make education and work plans.
Youth workers with the YSIL program support the youth to live independently. A client’s needs are determined before he or she enters the program with the help of an occupational therapy assessment, which is done by Fraser Health. This identifies the person’s strengths and areas where support will be needed and ensures that the YSIL program is the right program for the individual.
Together, the clinician, the youth worker and the program participant create an Individual Service Plan (ISP) that outlines the participant’s program goals. The first of these goals is usually to find appropriate housing. Then, goals may include a focus on home management (safety, cleanliness and laundry, for example), nutrition (menu planning, shopping and cooking) and money management (budgeting and banking). Other goals might include work and education planning, medical self-care (taking medications, attending medical appointments), stress and time management, problem solving and community integration (using public transit and accessing resources and rehabilitation programs).
YSIL workers may help to plan meals and shop for groceries. They may also help the youth to cook and to maintain his or her apartment. YSIL workers can provide support with school by helping to identify programs and funding options, even laying out a transportation plan and encouraging school attendance and the completion of assignments. If the youth is looking for work, the YSIL worker can help craft a resumé, seek out appropriate employment options and practise interviewing skills. In some cases, the client is referred to a job developer through Adult Mental Health or Work BC. Youth in YSIL meet regularly with their clinician and their YSIL support worker to ensure that the goals of the ISP are being met. The ISP is usually reviewed every three months to ensure that it is still addressing the youth’s needs.
YSIL workers typically spend four to six hours each week with each client. This schedule is flexible, and a worker will spend more time with a client if necessary. Typically, a YSIL youth worker spends more time with a client at the beginning of the youth’s program, especially during the search for housing.
The YSIL program is designed for youth who can manage independently with minimal support—something that can be a challenge even for youth without a mental illness. Sometimes a youth who is accepted into the program requires more support than YSIL can provide. In these cases, a clinician can make a referral to a more suitable program (a 24-hour licensed care facility, for example, or an addiction program). Sometimes it is decided that the youth should move back in with family.
Youth can stay in YSIL until the age of 21. Frequently, however, youth transfer to Adult Mental Health Services when they turn 19. This move can be challenging for the youth, as it may mean losing the support team he or she has had for several years. It also means a new psychiatrist and a new clinician or therapist and the youth may lose some of the other supports available in the Child and Youth Mental Health system. YSIL workers assist with this transition, including developing a housing strategy for clients as they move out of the program. This usually involves applying for other subsidized housing programs (such as those with BC Housing), applying for Adult Supported Independent Living options, moving in with roommates or setting up a home independently.
Since 2007, when I last wrote about the YSIL program for Visions, the program has undergone significant change. It now funds only six spots rather than 10. BC Housing made this decision in part because of the challenge of getting appropriate referrals and keeping the spots continuously full. We no longer have a YSIL training apartment (where youth could spend a few trial nights—a helpful exercise as the client prepared to make the transition to living on his or her own). The training apartment was cut from the program due to high rental costs and the fact that it was used only when a new client entered the program.
In my view, the loss of the training apartment is unfortunate. Many youth who enter the program are initially excited by the prospect of living by themselves. They often attribute their problems to their dysfunctional family living situation and are disillusioned when problems persist— sometimes even escalate—when they are on their own A training apartment can help prepare youth for some of these realities.
YSIL staff members have also noticed how much more challenging it is in the current housing market to house youth, due to rental increases and historically low vacancy rates in the Lower Mainland. Landlords are reluctant to rent to young, unemployed people who are (usually) renting an apartment for the first time; there are plenty of professional tenancy applicants—all with rental histories and references—to choose from. Rental companies often make tenancy decisions based purely on this sort of application information, without ever meeting the applicant in person.
In some cases, basement suites have become the ideal choice for youth in the YSIL program; home owners are sometimes more willing than large rental companies to take a chance on a youth. Increased living expenses have also placed more financial pressure on youth and their families. Basement suites often include cable, Internet and utilities in the rent, which can save a YSIL program participant a lot of money per month.
Vancouver and Surrey also have YSIL programs, but we occasionally get calls from elsewhere in BC; the need to house youth at risk is not unique to large, urban centres. In time, perhaps, other YSIL programs will be able to provide support to youth in smaller centres around the province. Many youth who transition out of YSIL have gone on to complete their education, find meaningful work and build a network of natural supports. Many graduates of the program are now employed and no longer require financial assistance. Some of our graduates are now happy and successful parents. This year, a former graduate of the YSIL program received the Coast Mental Health Courage to Come Back Award.1 Successes like these prove that our approach works: participants and communities alike benefit from supported independent living programs like YSIL.
To learn more about the Vancouver-Fraser YSIL program, visit the Vancouver-Fraser CMHA website at www.vancouver-fraser.cmha.bc.ca. You can also contact Lokayata Kular (Program Manager, Housing) at 604-516-8080, extension 323, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the author
Eric has worked for the Canadian Mental Health Association for 17 years. Currently he is a Residential and Community Living Support Worker with CMHA Vancouver-Fraser in the YSIL and Adult SIL programs. He also works at a CMHA transition house in Maple Ridge
For more information on the Courage to Come Back Award, see www.couragetocomeback.ca/.